Remembering the garden   

Lent 1

Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-21

Matthew 4.1-11

Sunday 26 February 2023 ©Suzanne Grimmett

Namibia on the south west of the African continent, is one of the driest countries of the world, and home to 2.5 million people, most of whom live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture. Climate change and desertification has made subsistence farming a challenging way to sustain life. In the Lent book, “Embracing Justice”, Isabelle Hamley describes her conversation with Charles, an elderly Namibian who had lived in his village his entire life. Charles said that “I can remember when I was a boy, there were trees… now it’s sand and dust and nothing but brush. We need the trees for firewood, but there are none left.” Wood is essential for daily tasks and for small businesses in the village, but if they keep taking the trees, they are making the problem worse. If they don’t, people will not live. With land able to sustain life becoming more scarce, conflicts are breaking out.

Yet Charles has had a very small impact on the planet in his lifetime. He walks to get water, has never owned a car or run electricity and mostly everything he eats he has produced himself. What he is experiencing is not a direct result of his own environmental interaction. His plight, and the plight of so many across the globe, point us as Christians to an urgent focus on justice that acknowledges the interconnectedness and interdependence of humanity, and indeed, of all creation.

In our readings for this first Sunday of Lent we hear part of the great mythic story of creation and what we commonly refer to as “The Fall”. In this story, death and violence enter the world as the abundance of the garden gives way to scarcity and competition. The idyllic communion between God and the human beings made from the earth is sundered and the equality between humankind shaken. In these narratives men and women are created equal in the image of God. All creation is good and both men and women are bearers of God’s image. Given that in other creation stories of the Ancient Middle East kings and their descendants alone were made in the image of God, the Hebrew creation story emphasizing that all humankind are made in the image of God is a deep challenge to patriarchal ideologies of the time and the consequent hierarchy of classes of people who are worthy or unworthy. The world throughout history has divided people into slaves and masters, colonists and the colonised. The Genesis account is a revolutionary counter narrative that would say that while difference is a gift of the diversity of creation, we were made for the kind interdependence where difference is held in non-hierarchical harmony.

If we all bear God’s image, then there really are no exceptions, and the habit we have of comparing and ranking difference is an essential human problem.[1] This indeed could be a focal point for a holy Lent. As we notice this habit of ranking and comparison, we could catch ourselves and remember that the person we are judging… or looking down upon… or thinking of less worth than another… is someone made in God’s image. Brian Mclaren points out that to be made in God’s image is to say we are like God…that we experience life through our relationships and love through our differences, as God does. We notice, name and enjoy things, like God. the garden we are naked and not ashamed. Like God, we can be those who we are without fear.[2]

So what went wrong in the garden? What actually happened in this mythical event in the garden traditionally known as ‘The Fall’? I keep emphasising this word ‘myth’ because I think it is critical to the way we approach this text. The Genesis account is not an attempt to put together a scientific explanation in a time when knowledge was not sufficiently advanced, nor is it an explanation of a mistaken belief. Myths are not intending to state facts but rather, as Marcus Borg defines them, are “metaphorical narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred” necessary for speaking about our origins in the world and our destiny in God. The serpent, for instance, carries a weight of symbolic power alluding to the gods of the underworld, a creature that brings life and wisdom or alternately, a trickster and bearer of a knowledge of life obtained through magic or divination. But myths are evocative rather than precise, so we will not find one correct answer to our questions. The question of what went wrong has multiple answers, each giving us a different impression of how we might understand ‘sin’.

Marcus Borg suggests four ways of interpreting what happened in the garden. The first- the simplest- is that it was disobedience to God. God gave a command and the first humans disobeyed it. Secondly, we could see the narrative of eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as an act of hubris or pride; basically giving the role to oneself that ultimately belongs to God alone. The focus of this understanding is on the serpent’s words, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil”. The third interpretation is to see the fall as what Borg names sloth but which means accepting the ideas of others to guide our lives and not taking responsibility for ourselves. This is made more clear in the following section of the Genesis reading where the man blames the woman for their downfall and the woman blames the snake. The human problem is found in our readiness to live the agenda of others and not take responsibility for our own lives. The final reading is to hear in this story of knowing good and evil the birth of human consciousness. This is something every human experiences as we grow from infancy- a sense of ourselves and a separation from one another. The movement from the oneness we know in our earliest life to a sense of estrangement and isolation that propels us into suffering. In this interpretation, we all go through the fall in the course of our emergence into self-awareness as a human species.[3]

There is no one correct interpretation. Indeed, there will be more than I have included here. But I do see in these readings a story that can help us in reflecting on the life-threatening dilemma of Charles in Namibia. If we absorb a narrative of scarcity and an individualistic view of the world where we are free to determine morality based on what best serves our own needs, then the story of Charles’ village in Namibia need not trouble us.

But if the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents a human desire to play God and determine who is worthy, then this is a story about what happens when humankind decides who can have the resources for life. Charles’ story shows us what goes wrong when we base that judgement solely on our own context and limited point of view. When we individualise our ethics, we cannot possibly have the whole picture and can only make biased judgements upon one another. How often do we find out that even in our own and known social context, someone we have been judging has actually been dealing with an incredibly difficult but hidden struggle? But deciding what is just and right is also impossible at an individualistic level because, as Hamley notes in the Lent study,

…as soon as you start pulling on a thread to interrogate injustice, connections between human beings, throughout the generations and the world, appear and reveal that all of us are part of systems and patterns bigger than ourselves, over which we have little control. [4]

The challenges are immense, but we are created for something far different from the separated and divided world of scarcity and judgement that we know. We were made to live as equals in the context of enormous human diversity. We were called to be faithful stewards of the earth, caring for all creation and its creatures and recognising that we are in a web of interdependent life. But we were also created by a God whose love for us is so great that the violence and death of individualism and separation would not be allowed to have the last word. We are not meant to be judges of one another and arbiters of right and wrong but lovers and dreamers and friends. We are not meant to rank and compare difference but honour it, working together for justice for all creation. Jesus came that relationships may be restored, sin forgiven and the tree of life flourish anew.

May the vision of goodness in the garden remind us that we need not rule, nor judge nor dominate, but surrender to the God who made us for goodness, for love, and for a life in harmony with one another and all creation.


[1] Hamley, Isabelle, Embracing Justice, (London, SPCK: 2021) p9

[2] McLaren, Brian, We Make the Road by Walking, (London, Hodder and Stoughton: 2014) p 9

[3] Borg, Marcus, Reading the Bible Again for th First Time, (New York, Harper One: 2002) p78-79

[4] [4] Hamley, Isabelle, Embracing Justice, (London, SPCK: 2021)